Friday, 31 January 2014

Witness: for the prosecution

As you know, we here at Vole Towers keep abreast of the very latest in popular culture. Which is why today's subject is a 1985 film set in the medieval Pennsylvanian Amish community. It doesn't star a Kardashian, but is still interesting.

Witness is one of those films I'll always sit down and watch whenever I catch it. It was on after Question Time last night while I was ironing my undercrackers, so I happily stuck with it. It's the story of honest cop Han Solo John Book (Harrison Ford) who is rescued and hidden by an Amish family who witness a murder, while his corrupt fellow officers search for him with his murder in mind. Ford's character discovers the joys and frustrations of a pre-industrial, devout way of life by working on the farm and helping with communal tasks. He discovers their code of non-violence and conflict resolution, and he falls in love with the widowed Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who has a young son, Samuel. There are heartwarming scenes of a barn-raising, one of erotic repression as he watches McGillis washing her naked torso, and there's a violent resolution. It's all soundtracked by a rather beautiful Jean Michel Jarre synthesiser soundtrack.

One of the weird things about getting older and thinking more is that doubt starts to eat away at even your favourite things. I remember a close friend leaving our final BA exam and announcing that he wasn't ever going to read a novel again because analysis had spoiled the enjoyment for him. He did start reading again, but not for a while. Some of my students have said the same thing.

My sense is that the ability to see how a thing is put together and being able to recognise and understand its flaws is a richer form of enjoyment than the pleasure of being lost in admiration for a text. I can still get carried away by a story, but I really feel that understanding its context and construction adds something for me. But I have to admit that sometimes, my appreciation of a text is lessened. This is where Witness comes in.

The attractions of Witness are, I think, pretty clear. There's the contrast between a corrupt and violent 'real' world and the simple, peaceful but static Amish community. It's like all those Shakespearean comedies in which characters flee the nasty city to sort out their problems in an unchanging, benevolent wood or country estate. The photography is beautiful – as are the actors – and the soundtrack is seductive. It feels like a response to 80s angst: gun crime, police corruption, moral ambiguity, urban alienation are all juxtaposed with this enclosed community in which simple rules regulate an organic community which has endured for hundreds of years. Everyone from outside the Amish other than Harrison Ford is loud, violent, greedy, aggressive and superficial. Take the confrontation between the Amish and some local goons:

However, this isn't a simple conflict between peace-loving devout people and degraded delinquents. I started to think that Witness is a betrayal of the people it purports to represent. The 'answer' to violence in this film is provided by our hero: more violence. Despite the lessons of his rescuers, Ford's aggression is the only thing that protects the Amish: clearly they're helpless.

It gets worse. You could say that at least here, only Ford is violent: despite (hypocritically) relying on him, the Amish at least don't betray their principles. However, the film ends with Ford's enemies invading the farm, intent on killing him. Ford kills two of them and in a clip I don't have, Eli Lapp – having impressed on young Samuel his hatred of guns and violence, sends the boy to fetch Ford's pistol. Luckily, by this time Ford has acquired a dead cop's rifle and used it to kill another. When Rachel is held at gunpoint, he's compelled to drop the rifle and it looks like he's going to be shot dead, when the Amish cavalry come over the hill and Ford ends the stand-off peacefully with a speech about 'enough' violence.

This bothered me as a piece of film-making. Witness spends a lot of time and soft-focus photography extolling the moral beauty of the Amish code

but the plot depends on these two outbursts of violence in which Ford meets corrupt force with righteous force, a total rejection of his hosts' pacifism. Without him, they would be dead – an argument made against the Amish when they refused the Vietnam draft. Far from exploring and testing this religious pacifism, I feel that Witness behaves rather shabbily by sucking as much as possible out of the Amish (simple clothes, good food, hard work, helping one's neighbours) while sneaking its devastating critique through without examination or comment. The ending is lifted straight from a standard cop drama and dumped in without alteration.

The film is also rather dishonest when it comes to sexuality and gender. Ford is an intelligent alpha male. McGillis's Rachel is young, widowed and beautiful. The increasing attraction between them is beautifully staged and forms the film's major sub-plot. He represents a dangerous form of sophistication, she is the emblem of demure female quietude, but the insular and repressive aspects of the Amish sexual code are critiqued. This is pretty good, I think, but the solution is a moment's kissing, some dancing, a lot of angst and self-sacrifice (she also literally lets her hair down: subtle!):

Rachel feels her love is unsinful, while the patriarch threatens her with 'shunning'.

It's all – explicitly – about the power of the patriarchy, as that clip shows. She cannot go into the world with Ford; he will not leave the world for her. Throughout the film, an Amish suitor is waiting, slightly jealously (part of the plot is the resolution of this homosocial tension through Ford demonstrating his good faith). As the credits roll, Ford stops his car to bid farewell to his rival, Hochleitner. To me, this is more than goodbye: it's the assurance that the young woman's sexuality is once more to be channelled back into its 'correct' course: love and desire denied in favour of propriety, all arranged between the men.

So there's ambiguity here. Witness endorses Amish sexual morality after highlighting the tensions inherent in it, while rejecting Amish pacifism. That seems to me to be a pretty good example of American morality: yes to guns, no to female desire. Perhaps this is OK, but I felt that Hollywood is guilty of massive hypocrisy in taking the Amish to task for its conservative and repressive sexual politics, given Hollywood's pervasive misogyny. The director makes sure that this film depicts McGillis's naked breasts: the male gaze is valorised here. No male flesh is exposed: the film industry carries on as normal. The scene seems to suggest that voyeurism is OK, even while it (temporarily) endorses Rachel's sexual desires. The patriarchal repressiveness of the Amish is critiqued even while the film lasciviously exposes a woman's body for a man and all the men in the audience. Which is more repressive?

I started to see the film as a precursor of Dances With Wolves and an array of other texts, including Avatar. In Witness the 'natives' are Amish, but they could just as easily have been Native Americans or the inhabitants of wherever it is Avatar's set. The point is that they're just props. They're their not to be taken on their own terms, but to mirror contemporary mainstream angst. In 1985, middle-class Americans were voting Reagan, fleeing the cities, moving into faux-Victorian cottages and fearing the kind of urban dystopias seen in Blade Runner (1982, also starring Harrison Ford) and Back To The Future (also 1985, also a satirical critique of consumerism). In Britain, people were buying Laura Ashley clothes and wallpaper and generally playing at Landed Gentry, if they had the money (much like now). So into the 'Amish' characters, Witness placed all the qualities urban America was supposed to have lost. The natives, whether Amish, First Peoples or alien, are what might have been, American before the Fall.

However: this is Hollywood. The origin – according to some – of the capitalist, consumerist poison. It shows up in the plot denouement: Harrison Ford's peaceful resolution is meant to show that he's learned something, but he has brutally killed two people minutes beforehand. The Amish have explicitly endorsed violence, symbolised by Eli's decision to send the boy to fetch a gun. Ford leaves: he can't stay on the Amish reservation. In terms of film-making too, Witness is hypocritical. Apart from being a film, and therefore something its characters' real-life equivalents can't watch, the soundtrack is deeply paradoxical. Using synthesisers for music supposedly resembling the authentic folk sound of the Amish has to be a sophisticated joke at their expense.

So in the end, I felt to my sadness that Witness is a rather beautiful deception. It poses as an indy film exploring the freedoms and constraints of an alternative way of life, but in the end it's guilty of bad faith. The Amish are merely picturesque: the plot doesn't allow them moral agency and they are exposed as hypocrites when it comes to violence, while their sexual repressiveness is attacked in a film which celebrates voyeurism and silences critiques of Hollywood's misogyny. In the end, it's little different from a 50s Western, and is conservative to the core. Fantasies of escape are raised as an implicit critique of contemporary life, but never taken seriously: in the end, the system is endorsed and reinforced by the combination of Book's violence, innate honesty and ability to learn. Despite the seductive depictions of communal harmony, 'one good man' is what it takes to change the world.


Mandinka said...

P.V., I thought Eli sent the little fella to ring the bell, not fetch the gun? Have I really watched this film so many times and not picked this up?

The Plashing Vole said...

I'm afraid so! He puts the gun away earlier in the film, but towards the end mimes holding and firing the gun, though the boy doesn't do it.